Tag Archives: Christmas

Stop Trying: The Holiday Spirit Cure

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!  The best holiday gift I can imagine…

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 24-28

Every year at this time I start to surge with mild panic.  It’s not about the presents.  I buy and make gifts for people throughout the year so that my pocketbook can weather the inherent extra spending of the season. No, the panic is about this thing called Holiday Spirit.  I want to feel it in my bones.  I want to feel it in the way I smile at a stranger in the street and the way that stranger smiles back.  We know something:  we still believe in Wonder.  The proverbial “they” say that it’s in the little things, the in-between moments, the pauses.  The snowy walk.  The lit candle.  The Christmas cookies you place in your neighbor’s mailbox.  When I wrote this blog post six years ago, I wasn’t so sure about this being true.  I was still in the height of my fulltime house-and-child-keeping, traditional-torch-bearing motherhood.  Things have quieted down in that regard, with a daughter in college and my son on his way next fall.  I’ve given up a lot.  I’ve taken the heat off the high burner in more ways than one.  I’ve let go of so many things I used to think were mandatory in order to have a meaningful holiday season.  I read the words of this woman from six years ago, and want to say to her, “You’ve got the right idea.  Keep going.  Keep practicing.  It’s all going to be okay.  You’re going to learn how to feel that holiday spirit in your bones without even having to try.  You’re going to learn in these next years how to allow the season to give itself to you.  You’re going to learn how to not try.  In fact, not trying is exactly how it happens.  You can not try all the way through writing holiday cards, getting the tree and decorating it, wrapping gifts, cooking the roast beast, and gathering friends fireside.  So to the woman I was six years ago, and to all of you, and to myself still, I say:  have a Wonder-ful Holiday season.

I have had my share of Christmas trees fall down in my forty-five years. Lost balloons. Fallen souffles. Cancelled flights. Burnt toast. Tough meat. Lemon cars. I wouldn’t call myself unlucky. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I can say that the butterflies of Christmases past have sort of flown the coop. In the last few years, I’ve mildly dreaded the Holiday season for all its glut and Amazon boxes and blow-up Costco snowmen and braggadocio holiday cards with “perfect” families in matching white linen on a beach…only for it all to end in a hemorrhage of ribbons and bows and tape and wrapping paper, kicked into the mudroom and eventually burned.

I miss the little girl in me that used to sit in her window seat and gaze at the moonlit snow– who knew a holy night when she saw one. I’ve become resentful somehow of Christmas. In other words, I’d like to punch the Kay Jewelers people in the throat. It begins with the manic Black Friday and ends in buyers’ remorse and an overheated living room full of things you thought for a few weeks you couldn’t live without and turns out…you could. For a holiday that is supposed to be about love and wonder incarnate and stopping to honor it, I’m with Charlie Brown–Christmas has gone berserk. Mostly what I’ve come to resent is the expectation.

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This year I’ve decided to rethink Christmas altogether. I don’t need to bully myself into feeling “the Christmas spirit.” It doesn’t need to be a season that erases pain and promises much of anything. It can be whatever it needs to be this year. I want to go lightly and untraditionally. I want to see if Christmas comes without ribbons and bows, Grinch-style. I got It’s A Wonderful Life over with last week. It’s just not going to be like that. We’ll fight over the Christmas tree. Ornaments will break. Somebody won’t get the latest in technology they’ve been begging for. Somebody will forget a God-child’s gift. In fact, this year, so far, I’ve done it all “wrong.” It’s the 12th and I haven’t bought one gift. I didn’t plan a Christmas photo shoot– in fact, our card shows the four of us with greasy hair standing on a marginally frozen lake, taken by a complete stranger. I didn’t get my paper whites forced so we’ll have those beloved white blooms in time for Valentine’s day. We’re not having our sledding party– we can’t afford it. There’s no snow on the ground anyway. And yesterday, the tree fell over.

I used to do it all so well. Year after year. A Dickens-worthy Christmas party with a half mile of luminaria lovingly leading our guests up our snowy driveway. Live music and caroling and roast beasts laid out in my grandmother’s best china and silver on the diningroom table. Handmade cedar garlands splayed on the mantle, the olive wood creche placed lovingly in its branches. Pepper berries dripping from the crystal chandelier. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters cued up for the kids’ race down the stairs, all filmed with a fully charged movie camera. Santa had special wrapping paper. My father’s 1925 Lionel train ran around the dining room while we read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Visitor. Gingerbread houses. Cookies from scratch with marbled icing. Neighborhood gifts (usually homemade jam) delivered by Flexible Flyer and smiling children in hand knit hats. Sing-along Messiah. It all sounds exhausting to me this year. Maybe those butterflies will come anyway. But I’m not forcing them to.

I’m just going to let Christmas carry me this year. Quietly. Little moments in pjs. A walk in the woods with the dogs, even if no one wants to come with me. I’m making CDs for people. That’s about it. Sorry if you’re on my list. In fact yesterday when my son and I were making Christmas cookies, we got so giddy we started using the spare dough around the cookie cutters and baking those random shapes too. So along with our Santas and stars and gingerbread men, we made cookies that look a lot like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and alligators. We almost wet our pants we were laughing so hard.

That’s what I want this Christmas to be. That’s my expectation: to expect nothing. And to trust that grace happens when we least expect it.

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Holidays Re-invented: A Spoon Funeral

Processed with VSCO with b1 presetHolidays are my haven, and not for reasons you’d imagine.  Sure, as a child it began with We Gather Together, and the Macy’s Day Parade, Santa Claus, and presents, and lunch under the Christmas tree at Marshall Fields, gingerbreadmen and sugar cookie iced snowflakes, listening to Bing Crosby by the fire and dreaming into the bright colored bulbs with blurred eyes—so that it all looked like a jewel-toned menagerie of the ultimate Christmas kiss.  That was all yes, magic.  But to me, the haven of it was in the people the holidays brought home.  Holidays meant that my people came back.  My sister and brother back from school.  Relatives in rooms we never used.  The living room and dining room came alive.  The house was full.  We were “the whole family.”

We prepared for those who would come, with those who came before them.  My mother would let me set the table with her grandmother’s soup porringers and aspic plates with gold edges framing forget-me-nots and cabbage roses.  She’d open cupboards that hung dormant all year until Thanksgiving, through to New Years, and pull shiny things from their shelves:

“These were your father’s mother’s Steuben crystal Teardrop Trumpet goblets.  Your grandfather gave these to her as a special Christmas gift in the 1930s.  They were farm people.  I’m sure he didn’t give her much at their wedding.  But by then he was the head engineer of a corn syrup factory.  Each of these is worth at least $150 a piece.  I’m not sure she ever used them.”  She’d hold each one like a tiny bird and wipe their rims with a soft cloth before she set them on the dining room table.

I wanted to touch them, but I didn’t dare.  She’d never let me get near them, but she would let me set out Aunt Eleanor’s silver.  I memorized the words she assigned to it:  Towle.  Old Georgian pattern from the 1800s, with ionic columns and rosebud wreaths.  My favorites were the teaspoons, with the roses running around the back of the spoon’s head.  I’d run my fingers over them and feel transported into other days before television and cars and airplanes that took big sisters and brothers away to boarding school and college, and fathers away on business trips.  The laying out of these shiny things meant that we’d be together around this table, our faces dancing in candlelight, the silver and china and crystal reflecting it all back.  The chandelier sending spectrums of starlight back down over us.  I watched a lot of faces in those spoons.IMG_9358

So for a long time, after I inherited these things, I kept them locked in a china cabinet, or hidden in boxes in eaves.  Then with our children still small, we built a house.  I fought for a dining room.  “We’ll be the family that uses it.  I promise!  We’ll have countless dinner parties and holiday soirees.”  And we did.  And I’d bring the shiny things out beforehand, telling my children the same stories, naming the names and wiping down these delicate surfaces as my mothers and mothers before me had, as I placed them on the table.

And then everything changed.

The man sitting at the head of the table no longer sat there, and I was thinking more about what I’d have to sell in order to keep the house, never mind what to put on the table.  There was a day when I stood in front of this china cabinet and thought, “They’d want me to sell that Steuben.  Wouldn’t they?  They’re resourceful farm people.  They’d want me to make my mortgage with their crystal.  Wouldn’t they?  I’ll become an Ebay wizard.  I’ll sell all of this stuff, even though every piece of it brings me back to my peopled world.”  Where I felt safe, and protected, loved and special.  That feeling was inside me, wasn’t it?  The three of us would still gather together.  It just wouldn’t be with two hundred year old plates that came to Illinois in a covered wagon during the Homestead Act, and then to Montana when my parents’ sold their home of forty-five years.  It just wouldn’t mean that we ate our turkey with the Towle, or stirred honey into our tea with the silver that was dug underground before the Yankees raided our ancestral home in Camden, Arkansas during the Civil War.  Aunt Eleanor’s rose-clad ionic columns would hold another hand steady in another room somewhere.  The shiny things would become our eyes dancing off of each other, not off of silver spoons.  And that would be okay.  My ancestors were house people.  They’d want me to do everything I could to keep it.

So one day when the kids were at school, I went into every eave, the attic, the dormant cabinets, took it all out, and splayed it on the dining room table.  My family story in shiny things.  I wanted to shake with silent wails.  But I shook it off instead.  I had to stop seeing these things for their stories and their people.  These were just things, after all.  Weren’t they?

I couldn’t think about it.  I had work to do.  I started to research the cost of it all.  Nine crystal bowls for my wedding that I’d never used?  Those would be the first things to go.  Actually, all of my wedding china and crystal and silver—that hurt me the most.  It had been chosen with such hope, such belief in the future.  Part of that future came.  Most of it didn’t.  I’d been saving my wedding china for the part that didn’t.  Most of the parties we’d had weren’t formal.  They happened around bonfires and in the living room with mugs of hot cider and breakable risks in semi-shiny things.

“I should save it for the kids,” I thought.  But how sick was that.  They’d be better off with the china and silver and crystal from the parents whose marriages lasted, and whose tables were peopled in the way they’d set out to create.  “I’ll sell the wedding china.  And the crystal.  That’ll take care of another mortgage payment until I can get on my feet.”

Processed with VSCO with b5 presetBut when I got to Aunt Eleanor’s silver, the ionic columns and the rose wreaths, I ran my finger over the back of the spoon head, and sighed.  Aunt Eleanor hadn’t had children.  Aunt Eleanor had given me my first Emily Dickinson.  Aunt Eleanor had travelled the world and taught me to love stories of the finer things.  And she had passed these down to me, along with a farm—the original Homestead.  I owned those two things.  And I decided then that I would not sell them.  They were the comfort, the security of my people, long gone, but still dancing in these spoons if I looked closely enough, if I looked in just the right way.

It turned out that didn’t sell any of it.  I asked myself a different question, instead:  “what do I know how to do that I can monetize without selling my legacy?”  And I gave myself permission to create a business out of what I’d spent my adult life mastering—and started facilitating people’s creative self-expression by using what had sustained me all my life:  the written word.  Out of the ashes, as it were, rose Haven Writing Retreats.  So it makes sense then, that I use my shiny, storied things on my retreats.  New people around this table, lips to Steuben as they tell their stories, real and imagined.  Lifting my homemade food to their mouths with my Aunt Eleanor’s Towle as they think-tank their books and characters.  Share about their process and projects– new faces spinning in the silver, refracted by the chandelier that hangs above us.  The dining room is alive again!

But on my last retreat, ‘tis true:  a spoon was lost.  A Towle teaspoon.  I’m sure it was an honest mistake.  My mother used to count her silver after a dinner party, and often ended up rifling through the garbage in search of lost silverware.  I found myself doing the same that night, after all the candles were blown out and the good day spent from word play and the people too for the same reason.  Alas, no spoon.

And there was a time when I think I would have cried about it.  Bemoaned this loss.  Felt less secure because of it.  Or like an irresponsible person who shouldn’t be handling the shiny things, no matter what her age.  My mind parading with, I should have left them in the shiny suburbs of Chicago where they would have survived.  Not my Montana life, which came with a bit of country road dust on it.  There was a time that I might have just given it a damn…spoon funeral.  I’m not kidding.  You’d give your goldfish a funeral, wouldn’t you?

But it wasn’t that way at all.

Instead, I took in a short breath and a shorter sigh.  One less spoon.  If I could fill my dining room with such brilliant minds and open hearts and a spate of candlelight flickering off smiles and so many glittering surfaces, it was worth losing a piece of shiny something every time until there was nothing left.  Because what matters is what is gathered:  the people.  The people.  The elegance:  their minds.  Their hearts.Processed with VSCO with b5 preset

So this holiday season, my children and I will gather with yes, our shiny things, less a spoon.  But this year, it all won’t be so cold and dusty and faraway when we bring it to the table.  It will be recently used.  Maybe a little tarnished from being out in the air.  And maybe even chipped or without their perfect placing.  But they will hold new stories.  New people.  New hope.  New future.

A spoon funeral?  The funeral that the spoon inspired was instead for my old life.  And it came with no great pageantry.  Rather, a short sigh.  Because three out of four of us are where we are used to being for the holidays.  We are grateful.  We are blessed.  We are family.  Shiny things or not.

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 3-7 & October 24-28

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The Merrier Me

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When laughing didn’t hurt…

Like a lot of people this weekend
who opted to tuck in front of the fire in lieu of holiday parties, I watched Rudolph, which always stresses me out and I’m not sure why I go, “awwwwwwwwww” when I see it’s going to be on television because that abominal snowmonster still freaks me out and all those sad toys with Rankin Bass puppet mouths, and then Frosty (ditto—he melts!  A little girl cries next to the puddle once known as his former self, and there’s a cloying bad guy that he can’t shake with a weird rabbit helper—I forget what happens in the end.  I think he moves to Brooklyn.)

download (1)And then the healing began.  Mary Poppins.  Two hours of Mary and Bert and tuppence and votes for women and evening govnah and magic umbrellas and bottomless carpet bags and sidewalk chalk painting portals into barber shop penguins and carousels with real horses and hilarious helium tea on the ceiling and and and.  Even though she leaves them in the end and they all have to find their inner Mary Poppins.download

The only thing of it is:  I laughed.  And that is a physical response to emotions I haven’t let myself feel for two months.  The who what when where why how of it has to do with a horse and my tendency to act over-confident when I’m scared.  And a loose cinch.  In short, he zigged, I zagged.  Bottom line:  if you’re going to ride horses, you’re going to end up on the ground sometimes.  You just hope you don’t hear actual bones cracking.  Three of them.  Ribs.

If you’ve broken a rib, you are now making the face I make when I see the abominal snowmonster.
download (2)It suuuuuuucks.  Breaths are reduced to small sips, coughing and sneezing are a delicacy you can only succumb to if you can’t not, sighing is not recommended, sleeping in any position at all is nearly unattainable (I seriously almost bought a recliner and put it in the living room), talking with any animation is ish-y, singing is better left to a dull hum, crying—meh…and laughter?  Laughter is verboten, like the Burgermeister Meisterburger has some sort of hold on you.

You know that kind of laughter that happens at weddings and funerals and graduation speeches that you can’t control?  It has total occupation of your diaphragm?  Well, that’s one of my central goals in life.  That kind of belly-womping primordial caccination.  With snorts in-between.  If you can’t breath deeply, you can’t pull it off, not by any stretch.  So you have a choice:  Laugh your way into scar tissue that will remind you of your stupid horse tricks for the rest of your life when you climb a ladder or reach for your shoes.  Or go deadpan.  Poker face.  In short, I’ve been officially depressed.  I lead retreats.  I needed to go on one.  Just not in my bed for two months, groaning.bdd9bf5f53c4df963b2e91e3a5b2e939

And now that it’s the holidaze, the Kay jewelers people don’t help.  Or those Folgers ads.  Or all the perfect Facebook Christmas trees.  Or the families in matching sweaters on my Christmas cards.  Or the fact that I haven’t gotten a Christmas card out this year and probably won’t.  In my mind, it’s still October.  Thanksgiving hasn’t even happened.  I’m finally going out for a ride on my horse after a grueling fall work schedule.  I’m tired.  I feel sorry for myself.  And I’m going to do something nice for myself, damnit.  He jigged.  I jagged.  And I watched fall become winter from my bed for the most part of two months.

But I’m not writing this to complain.  I’m writing all of this to say that I now know what gratitude really means.  Bless you, cup of tea that took me twenty minutes to make, including the hard launch from bed– the roll, the sidle, the squirm, the shuffle, the sit, and the big one:  the stand…the walk…and the stairs…the stairs, the pick up the tea pot, the fill it with water, the ow ow ow ow ow all the way back up the stairs, back to sit, to the slow timber back into the pillows.  Oh.  And then there’s the tea.  Waaaaaaay over there on the nightstand, a century of inches away.  “Forget it.  Let it get cold.  I’ve just done the Iditorod.”  And there she lay.  Watching the sun move around the house and the moon rise, and all of her responsibilities fall like the leaves she never got to on the lawn, and the snow that’s coming, that came, and all the people she’ll have to ask to help her do simple things and all the shame around one stupid moment on a horse that she was planning on riding every day for eight straight weeks of much-needed horse therapy.  Her new craving:  Epsom salts.  And oh, that cold cup of tea.  If only someone would come in with a fresh steaming cup and fold her laundry…  Still, I have never been more grateful for just being able to get up and make the tea, never mind drink it.

That said, all that woe-is-me managed to loop itself around to a world of hurt that I’ve never experienced before.  I’ve never taken anti-depressants, and for the first time, I seriously considered it.  And then, just as I was thinking this would be my permanent world…I caught myself laughing at something on Jimmy Fallon.  And it hurt…so good.  And I realized what was really wrong.  It wasn’t the horselessness or the shame or the frustration or even the pain.  It was the lack of laughter in my life.  Without laughter, I was living in a colorless world of fair-to-middling.  I had untrained myself out of delight.  Joy.  Unabashed explosions of glee.  And it had to stop.  I am a laugher.  No matter what.  I needed to get back on that horse.  (The other one can wait.)

So on Saturday night, in my eighth week of recovery, my ribs more mended than not, with permission from Mary Poppins and her tea-time wack-wonkery, I let myself laugh.  Ecstatic laughing.  In hee hee hees and hoh hoh hohs and hah hah hahs.  It made LOL look like mere titter.  And man…did it feel good.  My whole being felt light and alive in a way it hasn’t for far too long.  I am so grateful for this simple and essential human ability.  I love to laugh, indeed.  Laughter really is the best medicine.  LOLOLOLOLOLOL!

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2017

February 22-26 (one spot left)
June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8
October 18-22

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***According to Mayo clinic laughter is just what the doctor ordered!

***PS.  In all that lying around, I did manage to write 150 pages of a book.  So there’s that.  #grateful

 

 

 

 

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Give a Dream

11999725_10152969292486266_5989582988248983326_oHappy Holidays, everybody!  Haven Writing Retreats in Montana is a powerful, often life-changing experience that we want to share with the people who want it most. Thanks to Go Fund Me, and Fortua.com, you can help send writers to Haven in 2016!  

The first scholarship is inspired by Haven Writing Retreat alum Kathryn Stockett, writer of the best-selling novel and Oscar nominated movie,”The Help.”  Kathryn has set up a Gofundme account where you can offer a donation to help a writer come to Haven!  To donate, click here.

Here’s what Kathryn has to say:

The Dream: 
There is a person out there with the dream to write- they’re burning up with words to write – but they can’t afford the advice, time, and encouragement every one of us needs to write our story.   I think it would be so cool to send one writer with The Dream to a Haven Writing Retreat.    

 The idea sprung from hearing about an airline clerk in 1956 who knew she had a story inside her but she couldn’t afford to take time off work to write it.  So her friends gave her the money to go write for one year.  Oh what friends.  She wrote To Kill A Mockingbird.  

In 2002, somebody did it for me- just for a month- but I got the advice and the encouragement I needed and it changed everything.  I am ever thankful for that gift.

This isn’t a year, or even a month we’re giving, it’s just one weekend, but I think it could truly change someone’s life.  What’s even more magical is it would come from  writers and readers like you.  What friends.

If we make the goal, Laura Munson will take submissions for the scholarship.  The money will cover the workshop, food and lodging.  This is just a one-time thing, one scholarship, one person.  I hope you’ll help me help someone reach their dream.

Blessings,
Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help 

The second scholarship is for two writers in need, through a wonderful adventure travel website called Fortua.com:  Molly Carpenter and Terri Mellott-Gross both dearly want to attend my Haven Writing Retreat from February 24-28, 2016.

I’d be deeply grateful if you’d consider making a contribution to this campaign by clicking on this link:

In exchange for making a contribution you can receive some great perks and you’ll also have a huge impact on the lives of two wonderful women and aspiring writers!

Without your financial backing Molly and Terri will not be able to attend the retreat.

Meet Molly Renee Carpenter:

I am a Portland State student living in an eensy treehouse above the city. It’s just me, my cat, and my words. In 2011, I started a Word document for daily musings. It has gone through active spurts, dry seasons, entries with excessive cursing, and entries that led to a lot of tears being smeared on my keyboard (they have since dried but I remember they were there). It has never been printed. It has only been seen with someone else’s eyes once, by accident. This summer, it reached 100 pages. Its name has never changed, but the girl writing it sure has.

When I was in fourth grade I read “Little House on the Prairie” and my teacher made all us kids write a synopsis of each chapter. The paper we were given to use had outlines of covered carriages printed on them, the inside of the carriages were lined and we were meant to fill each carriage with each chapter’s synopsis. I remember being sent to the library multiple times throughout the class because I kept running out of paper. I was the only one who ran out of paper. I never could understand how those other kids could fit their words in such a small space. This is the first time I thought I might be different – with words, I might be different.

Sometimes it takes me thirty minutes to write an Instagram post. But between the chaos that is 18 class credits and a full-time job, that thirty minutes spent crafting two sentences will make my heart flutter with purpose. I want to thank each and every backer for this opportunity and believing in me. I know this will be a life changing experience. #ThankYou #SoGrateful

You can find me on Instagram @mollyrcarpenter

Meet Terri Mellott-Gross:

I am a Certified Intuitive Life Coach. I have lived through challenges I candidly wasn’t sure I’d get through and yet, with inspiration from others and finding meaning and purpose in the challenges themselves, I rose above these events to become a much stronger and happier person. Challenges included a difficult childhood, a 25-year marriage that ended in divorce, a diagnosis of aggressive breast cancer, and the death of my mother when I was a girl.

These experiences inspired many questions in me: Why are we here? Is life supposed to be such a struggle? What is the meaning of life?

For more than 20 years I searched for answers and learned we live in a loving universe. We are connected to this source of love and abundance at all times. We are being divinely guided at all times if only we would pay attention. I now know that life is magical, it is a gift and there is nothing that we can’t accomplish.

My goal in attending the Haven Writing Retreat is to further explore my voice and how to share my life journey in writing. To each and every backer, I thank you. Your support is a gift and I will make the most of every moment of this gift. Thank You. #VeryGrateful

You can learn more at LovinYourLife

During this season of giving, please rally to support writers, forward this blog post to your friends, and share the spirit of the season. Your support will have a significant and positive impact on these people’s lives.

Thank you and Happy Holidays!

Love,

Laura and the Haven Team

To learn more about Haven Writing Retreats click here.

2016 Schedule– all in gorgeous Whitefish, Montana!

February 24-28
June 8-12
June 22-26
September 7-11
September 21-25
October 5-9
October 19-23

LMWritingHaven

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Re-defining Family at Holiday Time

IMG_0007 (2)My friend and fellow seeker/Huffington Post Blogger Marina Illich and I like to untangle the hard stuff.  We call it Five Minute Manna.  This is what has our hearts and minds activated this holiday season:  Re-defining Family

Find Your People by Marina Illich

Holiday time is family time. But what exactly do we mean by family?  So many people live three times zones – or an ocean – away from their parents and siblings, turning travel “home” into a costly or time-sucking ordeal. Then there are the divorced parents left to create “family” plans on their own, while the kids spend their holidays with the ex. And elders? So many of them are repaired to an assisted living home far away, making it virtually impossible to get back to the ranch. 

Meanwhile, those who do get back to the ranch often wonder why they traveled the distance. We all know the uncanny way that holidays resurface old resentments, reactivate buried fault lines, and turn festivities of cheer into an endurance test of patience and poise.  Inside the dim welcome, one can almost hear singer/songwriter Damien Rice crooning those signature lines –  “Why do you sing hallelujah, if it means nothing to you? Why do you sing with me at all?”

Too many of us suffer enough from the predations of modernity – the divorces, job losses and job insecurity. The kids’ over scheduled lives and “underperforming” scores. The long commutes and dusty dreams. The loss of friendship and the loss of self. We don’t need the added pressure of enduring the holidays.

 So what’s the alternative? I suggest it’s time to update our idea of family. Let’s dispense with the imperatives to feel whole and happy inside a story of “family” that leaves us frail or frazzled. Let’s dislodge our commitments to stoicism and endurance that leave us walled inside towers of loneliness. And let’s disband our loyalty to conflicting demands that run us ragged when what we simply want is…to be received exactly as we are. 

Instead, let’s find our people. Let’s find those like-minded individuals who turn up in odd corners of our lives, who share some or none of our biography, who perhaps celebrate with fish when we celebrate with ham, or intone silent prayers when we devote ourselves to tracking the market or reading the Times. People who – for whatever logical or improbable reason – see, hear and feel our pulse with the gravity and gratitude that has us know we are at home. Let’s find those people and make those peoplethe family we arrive to in our stillness and frenzy, our hope and harry. And let’s make the gathering of that familythe ritual we behold – at whatever time of the year – to signal the holidays are here.

Let’s make thatfamily – geographically dispersed and culturally-spackled though it may be – the home inside which we eschew all the should’s and must’s we internalized along the way so that we can discover what we really are all about.

And let’s do all of this precisely so that when we do go back to our family with its far-flung network of third cousins, step-sisters, and in-laws, we behold them, once and for all – without indictment – exactly as they are.

Then, perhaps, we will find that whatever the season and whatever our destination, we are surrounded always and only by family – those relatives, friends, mentors, students, strangers and perhaps even adversaries – whom we recognize long, like us, for one simple thing: to be held and welcomed into our home exactly as they are.

 IMG_0002 (2)

A Family of One  by Laura Munson

It’s the holidays, and no matter what’s in that wisdom quiver of ours…things are likely fraught.  Why is that?  Well, once-upon-a-time, we believed in something that someone told us, or preached to us, or wrote about, or filmed about, or photographed… on the meaning of family.  And we bought it.  And there’s a good chance that “family” looks very different to us now.  There’s an even better chance, that with that difference, we find pain, disappointment, and even shame.  Especially during the holiday season.

I come from a long line of documentarians.  My mother lovingly made photo albums and home-movies, featuring every first day of school, play, dance, graduation, in addition to the annual Christmas card—all of us posed just-so, sent out to hundreds of people as proof that we were a family.  A solid family.  I loved all of it, especially our Christmas card, gazing at the ones we received from other families—a community, of sorts, to tout and hold dear.  It gave me an intense sense of belonging. 

So, as an adult, I took the photo-album-video-Christmas-card-baton, and raced to the finish every year with a family Best of book.  If the house was burning down, that’s what I would take—the Best of books.

It takes me hours to make these books, reveling in what we’ve created in the last year.  Making sure I have that perfect photo of every baseball and soccer game, every award ceremony and orchestra concert, every pinnacle moment, as, yes, proof of my amazing family, but also as proof of my motherhood.  And on Christmas morning, I love sitting with my family and flipping through its pages, ooing and ahhing over the past year’s achievements, high points, adventures, folly.

A few years ago, my family-of-four turned into a family-of-three.  My husband and I needed to end our marriage.  It was sad and shocking and deeply disorienting.  People told me that we were “still a family—just different.  A modern family.”  But I didn’t sign up for a “modern family.”  I signed up for a family with a mother and father as a united force.  It rocked me to the core.

I’m often asked if we’re okay, especially if the kids are okay.  I’m not sure what okay means.  We’re still feeling joy, inspiration, pride.  We’re still on adventures.  We’re still having pinnacle photo-worthy moments.  But during the holidays, in these post-divorce years, it’s all so difficult.  My gut says, Go slowly, keep it gentle, tuck in with your little family-of-three.  Time to re-boot your whole orientation of family.  So:  No Christmas card.  No Christmas party with the half-mile of luminaria and the carols around the piano.  And no Best of book.  Instead, I’ve focused on creating magic with my children, cozy around the fire, playing games, eating soup, pressure off.  This is living time, not documenting time.

But on those dreaded days when I can’t actively practice my motherhood, or “family-hood”—when my children are with their father and not in the other room, and I am alone….my productive (Best of) mind kicks in, almost breathless:  Go to a soup kitchen, visit a nursing home, find friends who are alone too– create a new tribe of “family.”  That’s usually the way I fly—carry on, hope-springs-eternal.  But for now, I’m listening to my gut instead, because I know that my new concept of family needs to find itself out of flow, not fear…and the truth is:  I’m very very afraid of who I am alone.  I can reason my way around this with great aplomb, but reason doesn’t help.  If I am going to move forward in a truly authentic way, I need to find refuge in myself.  And those alone Christmas moments are a good place to cut my teeth.

My gut says, Become your own family. Learn to take joy in the things your hands touch and deem holy, even if there’s no one there to witness it.  Smell the paper-whites in the window and have it be enough that it’s for your nose only.  Light the expensive candle and feel grateful for the way it focuses your gaze, fills the room with the scent of amber.  Put on special clothes and don’t care if you’re photographed in them or witnessed at all.  I trust my gut.  I have to find the light in my own eyes, alone.  I have to believe, once and for all, that I am okay, alone.  It all begins there.  And perhaps ends there too. 

So tonight, alone, in a cashmere robe, candle lit, I created a Best of book of these post-divorce years.  And something magical and Christmas-kissed happened.  Scrolling through my files of photos, I didn’t look for achievements and winning moments.  I looked for light in my children’s eyes, and mine too.  I looked for sacred.  If I saw it in a baseball championship or an Honor’s Society handshake, then I chose that photo.  But only if there was light in those eyes I love so much.  Including my own. 

Which means that as we leaf through this book Christmas morning, on top of all of my children’s radiant moments, there will be photos of me leading my Haven Writing Retreats, riding my horse, growing a life that is outside of the family I’ve fostered, and perhaps…in-so-doing, finding new “family.”  Maybe we can’t really move on…until I do.  Alone.  Maybe the definition of family is really a radical acceptance of self.  And once we accept that, both my mind and my gut tell me, we will find our family community thriving, even if it looks entirely different than we ever thought it would.

 candle

Marina Illich, Ph.D. is a Bay Area-based executive coach and leadership consultant and the co-founder and principal at Broad Ventures Leadership.  With a doctorate in Buddhist Studies, she  spent five years in Asia studying Tibetan Buddhist practices for developing self-awareness, focus and resilience. She was recently appointed to the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls by Gov. Jerry Brown. Marina can be contacted at: marina.illich@gmail.com

Laura Munson is a New York Times best-selling author and founder of the critically acclaimed Haven Writing retreats.  She lives in Montana with her family of three (and one!).

 

 

 

 

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Haven Gravy Giveaway!

Thank you to all who participated in my Haven Gravy Giveaway! We had some very interesting submissions, all in response to the challenge: why do you want my fabulous turkey gravy recipe? The prize? (aside from the recipe, of course) is a discount to a 2015 Haven Retreat in Montana. I’m pleased to announce the winter: Laura Probert from Bethesda, MD who responded with a 500 word poem about why she doesn’t necessarily want my gravy recipe as much as she wants to come to Haven! She gets both! You can learn more about her great work as a physical therapist and coach here: Bodyworks. And find her here too!


My next Haven Retreat will be February 25-March 1.  There’s still room but it’s booking fast! Give yourself the gift of creativity, voice, self-expression, community, support and inspiration!  You do not have to be a writer to come.  Just a seeker.  Gravy not included.

Now for the secret revealed!

Lining the Pan with your root vegetable gravy thickener...mmmm.  GOLD!

Lining the Pan with your root vegetable gravy thickener…mmmm. GOLD!

Laura’s 20 years-in-the-making Delicious Coveted and Begged-for Turkey Gravy Recipe

(Not heart smart, but who cares.  It’s one or two meals a year!)

The secret to this liquid gold requires some prep time but it pays off.  Oh, does it pay off.  The idea is this:  you dice an abundance of vegetables and line the roasting pan with them, cover with a rack and rest the turkey on the rack so that the juices drip into the vegetables during the cooking process.  Then, while the turkey is resting, you puree the entirety of the pan ingredients, grease and all, in a blender, and that is your gravy thickener!  It should be illegal.  The base is your reduced giblet stock.  It’s so easy and no stress and no raw flour ick and no corn starch yuck, and no intimidating de-glazing and no gizmo-dependent grease/juice separating… I’m telling you.  It’s the BEST.  Don’t be intimidated by the prep work.  I chop all the vegetables for the pan and for the stock the night before and put them in respective zip-loc bags so that Thanksgiving morning, I don’t have to do any more chopping than necessary for other preparations, like stuffing etc.  I strongly recommend this.  I never used to do this, and always was stymied by how long it takes to do this prep the morning of.  Cuts down your turkey morning prep by an hour!

Ingredients for roasting pan:  (if you do this the night before, put all of the vegetable out-takes (see parenthesis below) into a zip-loc bag for your giblet stock, so that you have 2 ziplocs– one for stock, one for pan)

Peel and dice:

1 Turnip

1 Rutabaga

1 Parsnip

2 Carrots (use the ends plus another carrot for giblet stock)

4 Yukon Gold Potatoes

2 Celery stalks (use the outer tougher stalks for giblet stock)

2 Shallot cloves

2 Garlic cloves

1 Leek (use the white part, and some of the green.  Wash and reserve the tougher top greens for giblet stock)

1 yellow Onion

4 crimini Mushrooms (reserve the stems for giblet stock)

1 cup chopped (Yep):  Parsley (Italian flat leaf), Sage, Rosemary and Thyme—fresh (use the stems/twigs for giblet stock)

1 stick Butter

1 cup dry white Wine

Ingredients for final touches:

Madeira

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Liquid:

    • Melt butter in small saucepan and add white wine.  Turn off heat once combined.

Lining your roasting pan:  (gravy gold)

    • Dump the diced veggies into the roasting pan.
    • Pour a cup or so of the warm butter and wine mixture from stove.  Salt/pepper.
    • Stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula so that all the veggies are coated. (you don’t want them to dry out during the cooking process, so remember to baste them as well as the bird)
    • Add any additional chopped herbs.  This should coat the pan about an inch thick. 
    • Put the rack on top of this, flat.
    • Put turkey on top and cover with additional butter wine, salt and pepper
Bird stuffed, racked, seasoned, ready to shed its love on its veggies below...

Bird stuffed, racked, seasoned, ready to shed its love on its veggies below…

Giblet stock for gravy base

Giblet stock for gravy base

Giblet Stock:

Ingredients:  (Don’t cheat and use canned broth.  This stock has a very specific flavor and makes the gravy sooooooo good)

Giblets (The gross stuff in the turkey cavity, but get over it.  Your hand is in a turkey cavity!  That’s already gross.)

1 tbs. olive oil

Whole pepper corns

Out-takes from all of the above vegetables and herbs (described in parenthesis above.  Best to put them in zip-loc bags while dicing the rest for the roasting pan the night before, to make prep time faster on Thanksgiving morning.)

Additional sprigs of rosemary and thyme, roughly chopped, stems/twigs included

1 garlic clove– crushed

1 medium yellow onion quartered

1 Yukon gold potato quartered

      • Heat a large saucepan, add olive oil, not butter—too greasy.  When hot, put in the liver.  This needs to be cooked through first.  Then deglaze the pan with Madeira—1/8 cup or so.  This stuff has a lot of flavor and you don’t want it to overwhelm, but it’s perfect for this feast.  Let it cook down—you don’t want the next ingredients to stew in pan, but to sear like the liver seared.  (you might have to add a bit of olive oil again to give it something to cook in)
      • Add the neck and other organs—brown
      • Now add the veggie out-takes plus the additional veggies/herbs described above.
      • Cover with water, a cup of wine, and add a few tablespoonsful of whole peppercorns and a few bay leaves.
      • The trick to any stock is to bring it to a boil, and then drop the heat down so that it is just simmering.  This is going to simmer all
        Swimming in turkey goodness.  Now for the blender...

        Swimming in turkey goodness. Now for the blender…

        Veggies from roasting pan to blender-- pureed heaven

        Veggies from roasting pan to blender– pureed heaven

        day.  If it gets too low, then add more water.  Taste it as it cooks to make sure the flavors are coming along.  Add salt/pepper to taste.

      • Keep to about 8 cups total

Gravy:  (drum roll…HERE IT IS!!!  My very own special, time-evolved gravy recipe!)

      • When the turkey is done, remove from the rack and let rest, covered in foil.
      • Remove the rack and put all the pan-liner veggies/fluids in a blender and puree
      • Put a large bowl (preferably one with a pouring spout) in the sink with a colander on top of it.
      • Strain the giblet stock.
      • Pour the stock into a small/medium saucepan—should be about 8 cups of stock
      • Add 3 tbs. or so of Madeira and lots of fresh ground pepper (a tbs. or so)
      • Cook down for a few minutes.
      • Now grab your whisk, and whisk in the puree, little by little until you get the right consistency. 

It is absolute magic and you never need any flour or anything else for thickener!!!  Secret shared!  Now pass it on to future generations!  Say you learned it from an old friend who wrote.

 

And here...it...is!

And here…it…is!

Gravy happiness.  Happy cooking to all!  May you share it with loved ones!

Gravy happiness. Happy cooking to all! May you share it with loved ones!

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Haven Holiday Giveaway

Giveaway Basket-December 2013

Announcing the winner of the Haven Holiday Giveaway!

I have never experienced more personal gratification in putting together a basket of love, spirit, and much good work– all from people who have touched my life.  Each of these people had an idea.  A far-fetched idea, some might say.  None of them let that get in their way.  What you see here is not just a bevy of incredible products, but hours of heart language, and miles of creative flow.  I want to thank all the  contributors.  Check out their information below and spend some time seeing what they do.  Maybe you have a “far-fetched” idea.  Maybe you long to bring it into reality.  These people hold the torch and say, “welcome.” 

Happy Holidays from Haven.  May you find haven during this magical time of the year. 

yrs. Laura

This gorgeous Giveaway basket includes:

A priceless collection of some of my very favorite things…to keep your heart hearth warm through the holidays and beyond…including a 10% discount on a Montana Haven Retreat in 2014!  Sign up here and win!

Welcome to some of the things I love!  I own all of these gorgeous creations and incorporate them into my life as often as I can.  They help me to focus, feel balanced, stay mindful, intentional, and grounded.  And they also feed my muse.  Each of these very special products has been birthed by powerful people who have come into my life and deeply inspired me.  I invite you to check out their web-sites and consider their creations in your holiday gift-giving.  And I encourage you to dig deep into your creative self-expression and follow your own passion wherever it leads you!

Giveaway Gift Basket:

A signed first edition hardback of my New York Times and international best-selling memoir:  This Is Not The Story You Think It Is:  A Season of Unlikely Happiness

2014 Montana Haven Retreat (selling out fast)!!!  10% off a retreat experience that will inspire your creative self-expression, nourish you, and re-charge your muse.

Great Northern Powder Guides:  10% off the cat ski adventure of your life in the stunning back-country of NW Montana.  A truly powerful Montana Moment!

Jessica Ricci Jewelry:  Silver Temet Nosce ring (Know Thyself)

BijaBody: BijaBody Nightly Beauty Tea, Deluxe Discovery Set with a sample of BijaBody’s protective Daily Body Serum and regenerative Anti-Aging Body Treatment, in a gorgeous, hand-make canvas bag

Clovis Jewelry:   Gold-filled Horseshoe Necklace

Glacier County Honey:  Two Montana-made large pine cone beeswax candles

Jennifer Schelter Yoga:  Inspirational Vinyasa Yoga DVD from one of the country’s best yogis.

JAMU Spa Products:  Ginger Spice Spa At Home (organic ginger massage and body oils and Balinese ‘boreh’ body scrub)

The Zen of Slow Cooking:  Organic whole and ground spice blends crafted for your slow cooker and designed to infuse a little zen into your kitchen.  Shopping list, recipe & zen reflection included.

And the randomly selected winner of the Haven Holiday Giveaway is: 

Heather Higinbotham who blogs at: http://justbegooddogood.blogspot.com/ and does wonderful work for Montana here!

Thanks to all of you who entered.  There are more giveaways to come in 2014 with more of my favorite things!

 

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No Black Friday

Give yourself or someone you love a Haven Retreat for the holidays!  My next one is Feb. 25th-March 1st and it’s filling fast.  Click here for the other 2015 dates and more info!

l Iike to re-visit this post every year on this day:


I grew up in a suburb of Chicago with a central square flanked by shoulder-to-shoulder shops in brick and tudor. A fountain on one end, a Parthenon shaped department store on the other, a park with grass and benches and a flagpole in-between. My goldfish met its maker in that fountain because I thought it a better life than the one he’d been living in a small bowl on my windowsill. I met my best friend at that fountain every day before school and ate donuts from the local bakery sitting on the side of it. I had a kiss or two in the dark at that fountain. I climbed that flagpole on a dare. I believed in the spirit of Christmas standing in that park, looking into the illumination of the crèche each December. We called it Uptown and it was an iconic yet controlled kingdom to us, the Downtown of Chicago being so vast and distant. My house was close to Uptown, and after school every day, I walked my dog around its streets, memorizing every alleyway, every store window, smiling at the familiar faces of the shopkeepers who knew my family, our names, our stories.

In those days, many families had charge accounts at the stores. So sometimes, I’d get permission to go on little shopping sprees, charging stickers and pens at the stationary store, ribbons at the dimestore, Bonnie Bell Lipsmackers at the drugstore, an album at the record store, a bike bell at the sports store, seeds at the hardware store for my vegetable garden. We had nicknames for these stores like old friends. They were our meeting places. Our stomping ground. Our stage. When my father died, the local grocery store gave us a cart full of groceries for free once they heard the news. These shops were the bones of our goings on as a community. Not because they represented greed or even commerce to us. They were the places where our mothers ran into each other and gossiped and wondered and pontificated. They were the places where we flirted with boys, dreamed up birthday parties, found the right words for a grieving aunt, played truth or dare over an ice cream sundae. A lot of these shops are gone now. Now the shoe store is a Williams Sonoma. The corner store is a Talbots. The hardware store is a True Value but it’s at least still there, even with a Home Depot lurking in the not-so-distance. I’m proud of the way my hometown values its local shops and supports them, even with so much bright-light-big-city so close.

Now I live in another small town, this one rural and full of economic hardship. I watch as the shop owners struggle to make ends meet and keep their doors open. I know most of them the way I knew my hometown shop owners. I watched as they took their vision and made it a reality. I see their pride because in our small mountain community, these shops hold deep importance. There is no option of city. People drive a long way to stock up on feed for their animals, paint for their barns, winter socks for their kids. Not long ago I was proud to say we didn’t have a Gap in the state of Montana. Or a Target, a Best Buy, a Home Depot, a Lowe’s, a Costco. That’s changed now. It’s here. Consumption Junction we call it. And it’s killing our local small businesses.

I see the store owners’ worry. All their money wrapped up in keeping their store running even if it’s barely paying the bills. I picture Central Ave. being one day like a ghost town of the old West, tumbleweed and all, the bars surviving because people will always drink away their woe. The churches surviving because people will always need to pray in public, knowing they’re not alone. But then I also picture a time when the box store will die. Our greed for unnecessary plastic items will fade if not devour us. We’ll stop filling up our shopping carts until they are brimming over when all we came for was…well, winter socks. And maybe things will return to the old ways. And people will live off the land. And buy only what they need and only when they can afford it. And barter for what they can’t afford. I picture a time when a person with sheep has profound power, shearing them and spinning their fleeces, and a person who knows how to work a forge is the reason why transportation is possible, horses needing shoes and meaning business—not just decoration or a vehicle of recreation. And the Farmer’s Market will be more than a sunny place to listen to a singer/songwriter and buy a hula hoop along with your Swiss chard.

There is a road called Farm-to-Market here in Montana where I live. It’s a pretty Sunday drive. When I take that road, I think about how it once was a bloodline for this community. Blood sport. Many broken hearts along its fences. Countless dashed dreams and false hopes. The kind of road where you sort out what you’re going to say to your wife when you come back with a full cart, someone else’s tomato crop being what it was. It’s not that I defy modern technology or progress or the possibilities of button pushing. It’s that I don’t trust us to know what to do with what we’ve created. I trust humility more than greed. And as much as I love that I get welcomed into Walmart and love that I can get winter socks for my kids and Swiss chard both and still get back in time to pick them up from school, as much as I know that those are local people working those jobs, in honesty and humility with dreams of their own, sorting out their own stories to tell their spouses…I want us to stop.

I want us to go to the local hardware store and eat a bag of popcorn while we discuss paint color and drill bits and talk weather while we do it. And what about that school bond and what about that new city councilman? I want us to drop our spare change into the Mason jar to help with the Nelson girl who has Leukemia. I want us to go slowly again. I want us to wonder about each other. I want us to ask, “How’s business?” and hear that it picked up this October, which is usually a slow time—better than last year. To nod and smile at that good news and feel like we’re going to be okay. We won’t lose our hats along with our dreams.

This holiday season, I want us to stop. Not take our turkey hangovers to the early morning, standing at a Target ready to run in like monkeys on a zoo break. I want us to continue the gratitude of the day before. I want us to sleep in and maybe take a walk into town later to see what the local shops have for sale. I want us to have those conversations. I want us to go Uptown instead of Downtown and especially I want us to steer clear of Consumption Junction. Even if it costs a bit more. Even if it is a little less shiny. Even if it means we buy less, or go to three stores to find that one thing our kid asked for. I want us to stroll down Central Avenue. And say hi to each other. I want us to be thankful for our town squares and our backyard businesses and see ourselves in the reflection of their holiday windows.

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Holiday Haven: Musings on Comfort and Joy

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2018

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and trusts the power of the wilderness of our Montana Haven to inspire the wilderness of your unique mind!  Come find your voice this February…  For more info, and to contact the Haven team, go here!

February 28-4 (a few spaces left)
April 18-22
May 16-20
September 19-23
September 26-30
October 3-7 & October 24-28

IMG_4412“A toast does not require a glass with which to clink.  It really doesn’t.”

The holiday season can be for many people…let’s just say:  fraught.  Maybe your life hasn’t gone the way you imagined.  Maybe you’d planned to spend Christmas Eve with a spouse, fireside, toasting to the future over your grandmother’s secret egg nog recipe.  Maybe you had dreams of children gathered around a beautifully set Thanksgiving table, drooling over the cooked beast, begging to hold hands and make sweeping statements of gratitude for another year of your endless bevy of sage advice.  Maybe you fell hook-line-and-sinker for the Holiday card photo that would be yours until death did you part—only this year, there’s only one parent in it, and you can’t find your camera anyway, and your kids refuse to pose.  Maybe you strung up your heart on the one small square box that would await you under the tree, filled with a tiny trinket with your name on it from someone called, Forever Yours.  Maybe your adult children and your grandchildren chose to go to the in-laws for Christmas and you’ve heard SHE makes better gravy than YOU, never mind her croquembouche !   My God…maybe you’re alone on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years.  Maybe your traditions never got a chance to birth.  Maybe the last time you felt that holiday cheer was when you were little and you’re far from little these days.  Maybe you want to beam yourself back to a time in your life that was more fair, simple, abundant, safe.  Or at least call someone who could remember that time with you fondly.  Only maybe, all those people are gone now.  

Don’t worry.  I’ll stop.  It’s not my goal to depress you.  But I’d like to think it’s my job to provide you some comfort and joy.  So here goes:

Whoever you are, wherever you are, the holidays are bound to leave your heart in shreds at least a little.  And before we get too far into the season, I’d like to help your heart hearth make its way to 2014 whole.  Fortified.  Happy to be beating whatever shape it’s in.

There are all sorts of ways to make the holidays sacred without focusing on what’s missing.   You can get a turkey from the grocery store (a lot of them give free birds this time of year), make soup out of it, and bring it to the local shelter.  You can invite friends you know are alone to sing carols at the local nursing home and gather for a meal afterward.  If your kids are elsewhere for a holiday, you can celebrate it with them on another day of your choosing and make it just as special.  You can make a Gratitude Tree out of branches, put it in a vase in the middle of the kitchen, and write notes of thanks on pieces of paper and hang them like ornaments—one per day until you ring in 2014.  You can read to kids at your local library some of those books your mother read to you and you read to your kids, or wanted to read to the kids you never had:  Truman Capote’s “A Thanksgiving Visitor,” “A Christmas Memory,” Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,”  Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Whales.”   You can gather up every holiday song you ever loved and blast them from the rafters of wherever you currently call home and sing your heart out. 

candleA toast does not require a glass with which to clink.  It really doesn’t.  You may tell yourself that it does.  And where will that get you?  On the Polar Express to the Holiday Blues.  Let’s step away from that train wreck and into the sacred.  Because no matter how you shake it, the truth is:  There is no shortage of sacred this time of year.  It’s everywhere.  You just have to receive it as the gift it is.  And there’s no re-gifting the sacred.  It comes to you, often when you least expect it, and it fastens you to reality like nothing else can, because it’s all yours.  No one can feel it for you.  Or take it away.  You can stand in a holiday-bedecked Lincoln Center, dripping in holly and cedar bows in the height of Handel’s Halleluiah chorus, standing next to everybody who’s ever been in your Christmas Card from the year you were born…and feel nothing.  You can hold hands around a cooked beast, candle-light dancing on the faces of generations of loved ones and generations of china, crystal, and silver…and feel empty.  You can stop in a snowy field in the middle of the night and watch steam funnel from the noses of draft horses, sweating from the sleigh ride they just took you on where you sang Jingle Bells, and drank hot-buttered-rum and someone quoted Robert Frost…and feel heartless.

So it’s time to stop bowing at those altars, especially this time of year.  If the magic happens…good for you.  As long as it’s something not nothing…full not empty…heartful not heartless.  Otherwise, let’s change the way our holiday minds think.  Let’s look truthfully at what is comfort and what is joy.  And let’s create that safe haven around us.  It begins with us.  Not who stands or sits next to us and in what hallowed hall.  Not who toasts with us.  Sings with us.  Eats with us.  Gives us gifts.  Receives ours.  We can take those Action verbs and send them up the chimney.  And we can replace them with a Being verb.  It’s possible to actually BE comfort and joy.  Not wait for it.  Of course it’s powerful (and yes, comforting and joyful) to take that Being and share it with loved ones in celebratory holiday moments.  But again, it has to start with us.  Whether or not you have a faith base, the truth is plain:  Our heads don’t bow on their own.  We bow them.  And whatever we’re bowing them to, especially at holiday time, let’s let those altars be ones that truly fill the heart hearth with comfort and joy.  Not expectation for the future or grief over the past.

This simple bowing to this simple altar is better than any tradition ever has been or will be.  Because it’s free.  It’s un-fraught.  It’s as simple as lighting a candle.  Not as a window-sill vigil for family lost or never gained.  But as an act of pure delight in the exact moment of your heart and breath.  This exact moment.  Right now.  Take a flame to that wick.  Sit quietly and watch.  Smell the wax warm and watch it pool and dare yourself to stay long enough to see it flood and drip.  Don’t clean it up.  Maybe put your finger into its stream and wonder at the fact that you can take the heat.  That it’s still friendly flame.  Just you and a lit candle.  All of a holiday winter’s night. prints

As featured on Huffington Post 50

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Long Ago: Community Entry #3

My characters are in Mexico, but they have the souls of Fir trees, snow laden…

A space just opened up for my Feb. 27-March 3rd Haven Writing Retreat in Montana…  Maybe it has your name on it!  Contact me at Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com… 

I am loving your entries for my “Long Ago:  Community” writing series.  Thank you to all who are submitting.  Keep them coming!  The winner gets a scholarship to one of my Haven Writing Retreats here in Montana…where I am taking the dormancy of winter and turning it into prose this month.  Thank you for keeping These Here Hills warm in community.  Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject.

Please enjoy this lovely piece by Lynn Trudell who blogs here.

yrs. Laura

The Christmas Tree, by Lynn Trudell

“We’re Jews,” my father would say when I begged him each December to buy me a Christmas tree.

The truth is, we weren’t anything, really. Though my father narrowly escaped Nazi-occupied Russia at the age of 14, bribing Auschwitz bound train conductors with gold pens, he left the practice of religion behind him when he came to the United States. My mother, who he met three months after arriving at Ellis Island – also a Jew in name only — agreed to marry him before a judge at City Hall. But because they were medical interns, the only night they both had off was Christmas Eve. So they tied the knot then, and ever since, celebrated the occasion of their union on the eve of the birth of Jesus, alongside the rest of the Christian world.

As you can imagine, this celebratory nod to Christ slightly confused their three children, of which I was the youngest. Every Christmas, gifts were exchanged, flowers were delivered, all kinds of delicious food was prepared, and even a few decorations were hung with care over our grand piano. But there was never a tree.

“We can call it a Chanukah bush,” I reasoned one evening at the dinner table. I was probably eight or nine at the time and convinced that if I presented my argument in the right light, my father would concede.

“There are more practical things we can spend our money on,” he said, pointing the end of his knife at my half-eaten broiled chicken breast. “Finish up,” he added, ending our discussion. His colleague, a man I will always remember for his huge stature and his odd propensity for smothering everything he ate in catsup, happened to be eating dinner at our home that night. And though I didn’t know it at the time, he was paying close attention to the conversation.

That Christmas morning, like every other morning, I opened our front door to collect the New York Times for my parents. But instead of the usual gust of crisp winter air, I was greeted by a monster-sized blue spruce leaning up against the outer glass door of our home, its branches extended wide as if waiting for an embrace.

So began the start of a new and magical era in the home of a Jewish girl who dreamed of decorating a Christmas tree. Every year after that, like clockwork, a perfectly shaped, deliciously smelling tree would arrive on our doorstep, freshly cut and awaiting my adoration.  I’d spend hours stringing popcorn through dental floss, cutting out stars of David on yellow construction paper and tossing silver tinsel over the outer branches. One year, my parents even sprung for a few colorful iridescent balls that I hung with precision on the side of the tree that faced the room. All of this fussing over a freshly cut tree made me deliriously happy through much of my childhood.

But as I grew older and my siblings moved out, the tradition grew less magical. Until one Christmas there was no longer a tree to decorate. And I didn’t miss it because I was busy making plans with my friends or traveling to visit a college boyfriend. In fact, it wasn’t until decades later that I was reminded of how a simple tree dressed in white lights and colorful ornaments could undo so much sadness.

I was thirty-four-years old, living in a beautiful home in Northern California with my two-year-old son, wishing I was dead.  It had been over three months since my husband’s accident, and though no one at the acute rehabilitation center where he lived ever said so, I knew I had already lost the man I married to the fathomless world of traumatic brain injury.

In spite of my broken heart, Christmas came anyway. And because I had a two-year old with piercing brown eyes and a penchant for pirate costumes, the members of a small non-denominational church in the town next to mine stepped up to make his Christmas, if not mine, magical.

People I didn’t know arrived at my doorstep with food and presents wrapped in colorful paper. They came with scented candles and snowman mugs and icicle lights for the outside of my home.  Then they brought the tree.  A simple green pine they propped up on an upside down cardboard box covered in red felt. When they asked if I had any ornaments to decorate it with, I told them I didn’t because I was Jewish and Jews don’t decorate Christmas trees. So they went home that night and returned the next day, each carrying an ornament for the tree they had placed on the box the day before.

That evening, Christmas Eve, my son and I laid on our backs under our sparkling tree, breathing in its earthy, citrus smelling sap.  I watched as his eyes grew big, taking in all the colors and lights that hung above our heads, and felt for the first time in months, a twinge of joy in the remote corners of my heart. It was at that moment, I think, that I realized there’s only so much room in a person’s life for sorrow. Eventually love does find its way home.

Fifteen years later, as I jot these memories down, I find myself gazing up over my computer screen at the gigantic pine tree that sits in the corner of our living room, decorated with many of the same feathery angels and beaded snowflakes that the members of that tiny church contributed to my now abundant collection of ornaments. My son is no longer a child. He’s bigger than I am and asks for dress shirts and cologne for gifts instead of toy helicopters. This year he tried to convince his eight-year-old sister that we didn’t need a tree.

“We’d be contributing to global warming,” he argues.  “And besides,” he adds as an afterthought, “we’re Jews.”

His words are a chorus to a song I’d long since forgotten. I catch my breath, wondering if my father, several years dead, is returning from the grave to finish our battle once and for all. But before I have time to respond, my eight-year-old daughter speaks for me.

“Have you lost your mind?” she shrieks with the authority of a person three times her age. “One stinkin tree is not going to make a difference.” She’s Montessori-educated, which gives her an edge. She also knows better than to touch the comment about being Jews. I, on the other hand, am ready to explain that our being Jewish is entirely beside the point. But I resist the urge because I know that one day my son will get it. He’ll understand that a tree decorated in white lights and weighted down with feathery angels – no matter where it comes from or why it’s standing in the corner of a living room — can’t help but bring joy into this world.

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